I hadn’t been writing or even reading fiction for a long time. Maybe 10 years. Instead, I’d started a lovely journey into the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, which was giving me the necessary time and the tools to reflect on things, to develop some greater understanding and appreciation of my life, and I didn’t see any reason for coming back to reading and writing fiction, or any route that might allow it.
Then came an article in The New York Time Book Review
about a mysterious Italian author, Elena Ferrante
. The article was intriguing and made the writer sound unmissable. A good friend of mine — a fellow Buddhist practitioner for whom I hold something beyond tremendous admiration — had also read the article, and we were both curious. We decided that we’d each get one of Elena Ferrante’s books, read, then trade, so we could each read both.
I devoured mine, in awe. I felt I’d never read anything quite like it: such striking, direct prose; such a gnawing, bone-crunching, grinding look at daily life, inner life, trauma. It all felt so close, so real to me.
My friend, on the other hand, read the first few chapters of her book and couldn’t go on. It was too dark, too disturbing, she said. She didn’t want it back, and she didn’t want the one I’d just read.
What joy! I got to keep both books!
This friend and I had been tutoring together for the past few years — teaching very special, young Tibetan Buddhist children from Tibet, Nepal, and India, by way of Queens, how to read and write in English. I’d taught a very young boy — a perfect, terribly bright, but naughty little sweetheart — the basics. We’d got through the alphabet, consonants and vowels, word formation, early readers, all the way to E. B. White
’s children’s novels, and he was an ace.
By the time my friend and I read The New York Times
article and got ahold of our Elena Ferrante books, I had moved on to teaching a group of four lovely young girls, maybe 12 to 13 years old. We’d been reading and discussing Laura Engels Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie
series together, and, being a writer (in what, by this time, felt like a past life) and being from South Dakota myself, Wilder’s landscapes and the hardships she described made sense to me. I hadn’t read any of her books since I was a child, but teaching them to the girls, and seeing the simplicity and directness of Wilder’s prose and the way she recounted what happened to her family in their efforts to settle on the Great Plains, made me think (more than once): Hey, I could do that!
But writing again, reading fiction again, was like a fresh new world opening up for me.
Then came the Elena Ferrante article.
I read The Lost Daughter
first and was enthralled. I read Troubling Love
and was overwhelmed, dazzled, awestruck. I found myself walking around with my mind suddenly bent toward the stories I’d always wanted to tell — the dark, dizzying stories of my own family life. I read Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels next. They were gritty and dark, following without apology the quotidian flow of daily life and troubled relationships, and suddenly I understood that maybe, just maybe, I could write my stories, too. The everyday ups and downs, the frustrations, fulfillments, and deceptions of close, difficult relationships — all that was acceptable ground, worthy of indulgence and exploration.
So I started writing again — after so many years, after raising two children, after a decade of reading only Buddhist texts — I started writing fiction again. And I started where everyone starts: with a blank page.
Around this same time, as I was driving over the hill in our small, upstate New York town, likely to the grocery store, I happened to hear a very old friend of mine, Claire Shipman (with whom, sadly, I’d long ago lost touch), speaking on NPR. She and her writing partner, Katty Kay, had written an article that appeared in The Atlantic
. It was titled “The Confidence Gap” and was about how, often, men who do not have the skills for a particular job are hired over women who do, because men are willing to claim skills they don’t already have, confident that they can acquire them as needed. Men have the confidence to believe that what they don’t already know, they will learn, while women tend to think they need to know something perfectly before they can claim it, before they can even get started. So women end up, most often, underrepresenting themselves, saying they don’t have skills they actually do possess, and robbing themselves of the chance to advance.
At one point in the interview Claire Shipman told the interviewer that women needed to constantly “overcorrect for confidence.” It was a shocking phrase, turning everything like modesty and self-effacement on its head, and it stayed with me. It seemed to be just what I needed to hear, just when I needed to hear it. It was exactly what I had to do to meet the task I’d set in front of myself.
From then on, every day, I went into my study and faced the blank page with that phrase in mind. And every day, when I’d finished whatever writing I was able to do, I concluded the same way, reminding myself again and again, “Overcorrect for confidence.” No matter what I’d written, no matter what it was like — engaging or boring, funny or sad, elegant or unruly — my only job was to adjust my mind, to realign my attitude, to see the good in what I’d accomplished so far. Whatever needed fixing could be fixed tomorrow. Today, I was just going to get the words down on paper and pat myself on the back for doing it. I was going to do the work and overcorrect
And so I began putting down the first pages of The Distance Home
. (None of which turned out to be the first pages, and little of which even ended up in the book! Ha!)
But writing again, reading fiction again, was like a fresh new world opening up for me, even richer than when I’d closed the door on it those many years ago. It felt like somehow I’d planted seeds in a garden behind a tall gate, then locked the door, turned my back, and gone away. And while I was gone, it had so happened that the sun and the rain had been doing their work. Because when I turned back around, when I unlocked the gate and ventured back into the garden — expecting to find only wilted stems of unblossomed flowers and thorny overgrown weeds — to my great surprise, the whole place, the whole world, it seemed, was filled up with flowers.
I did the work, I wrote the pages I’d wanted to write for so long, and even though time had passed and I knew I was getting a late start, I was happy and grateful to have followed the clues set in front of me and found my way back to something I loved, something I’d wanted to share so much for so long.
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grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota. She is a graduate of the Syracuse University creative writing program, and was awarded a postgraduate Albert Schweitzer Fellowship at the State University of New York at Albany, under then-Schweitzer chair Toni Morrison. She lives in California with her husband. They have two grown daughters. The Distance Home
is her most recent book.